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Can Biden Out-Hillary Hillary?

The principal rationale for selecting Hillary Clinton as Barack Obama’s running mate is that she would have united Democrats behind their nominee at a time when they have a substantial advantage in party identification. John Kerry received 89 percent of the Democratic vote in 2004; if Barack Obama can get within a couple of points of that, even to 86 or 87 percent, he will be very difficult to defeat.

However, Joe Biden might do nearly as good a job as Clinton of uniting the party, while perhaps paying less of a price among independents.

Rasmussen has fresh approval numbers out for Biden, as well as several other Democratic short-listers. Here, borrowed from Rasmussen’s invaluable subscriber service, are their approval scores by party:


Candidate Fav-Unfav
Clinton 77-22 (+55)
Biden 65-17 (+48)
Bayh 45-25 (+20)
Sebelius 35-19 (+16)
Kaine 35-29 (+6)

Clinton has the highest favorables and highest net score among Democrats; Biden has the fewest unfavorables. Generally speaking, Clinton and Biden blow the other three candidates out of the water.


Candidate Fav-Unfav
Kaine 29-30 (-1)
Bayh 23-43 (-20)
Sebelius 14-45 (-31)
Biden 22-63 (-39)
Clinton 21-75 (-54)

Amongst Republicans, the ratings are very nearly the reverse. Joe Biden will not have a terrific amount of crossover appeal. On the contrary, though the animus might not be as personal as in the case of Senator Clinton, Biden will be seen by many GOPers as a partisan blowhard. One can argue, however, about whether this really matters. The notion that Obama was going to win over some large number of “Obamacans” had not realistically been in play for a couple of months now, as the GOP base has begun to rally behind John McCain.


Candidate Fav-Unfav
Biden 42-29 (+13)
Bayh 31-21 (+10)
Kaine 24-23 (+1)
Sebelius 18-21 (-3)
Clinton 39-57 (-18)

Where Biden might do some good is among independents, among whom he has the highest favorables and highest net rating, although a couple other candidates had lower unfavorables. But Biden certainly performs better amongst this critical group than Hillary Clinton. One can argue that Biden is very well positioned within the Democratic party, probably just slightly to the right of the average Democratic senator. Liberal Democrats certainly won’t be pleased with his votes on the AUMF or the bankruptcy bill, but they still essentially trust him, which they wouldn’t necessarily with a more identifiably centrist choice like Evan Bayh or Tim Kaine. But on the other hand, Biden cannot so easily be characterized as a liberal to turn off independent voters; in fact, independents and moderates like him pretty well.

Let’s take one more, slightly different take on this. This time, we’ll look at impressions of the candidates based not on party ID, but rather, based on who the voters had intended to vote for in November. Let’s make the following assumptions:

– For each McCain voter that has a very favorable view of Biden, one-quarter of them will switch their vote to Obama.

– For each McCain voter that has a somewhat favorable view of Biden, one-eighth of them will switch their vote to Obama.

– For each Obama voter that has a somewhat unfavorable view of Biden, one-eighth of them will switch their vote to McCain.

– For each Obama voter that has a very unfavorable view of Biden, one-quarter of them will switch their vote to McCain.

Does that sound reasonable? It sounds reasonable to me, though I really have no idea. But let’s run the numbers and see what we get:

VF = Very Favorable
SF = Somewhat Favorable
VU = Very Unfavorable
SU = Somewhat Unfavorable

... McCain Voters Obama Voters
Candidate VF SF VU SU Net Margin
Biden 4 20 5 10 +2.00
Bayh 4 19 4 16 +0.75
Kaine 8 21 8 20 +0.25
Clinton 11 14 13 14 -0.50
Sebelius 3 13 5 13 -0.50

What’s noteworthy is not so much that Biden will turn a lot of McCain voters on — Tim Kaine and Hillary Clinton would have done a better job of that — but that he’ll turn very few Obama voters off. As a result, this method projects a net swing of 2 points toward Obama, which is better than he’d do with any of the other candidates. Biden also performed quite well in these ratings among undecided (43-22 favorable) and third-party (45-36 favorable) voters, though the sample sizes are probably too small to be worth worrying about.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.